The Earlier People And Their Monuments

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For Exmoor in general, there is evidence of Iron Age (600 BC - AD 43) settlement and Roman (AD 43 - AD 410) occupation. It is often mentioned that people left Exmoor when the climate changed. This is true but in prehistoric times Exmoor was inhabited because elsewhere the climate was worse. If you go back in time far enough, northwards lay an ice cap. In later times towns with more rewarding work became more attractive.

In the Early Bronze Age the Beaker People occupied the valleys. They were farmers and weavers. They used cremation and deposited the bones in a central pit beneath round barrows. The stone circles, stone rows, stone settings and solitary stones found on Exmoor are attributable to these people.
near Brendon Two GatesThese stone settings vary much in form and size. Some seem to be no more than pointers whilst others are more sophisticated or are of the circle type. The circles are more often associated with burial places. Despite what has been said elsewhere, stones are in groups of four, three, or two or are found as single stones. What is extraordinary is that the sites are in groups of at least three in exact straight lines. This points to the possibility of there being surveying devices for positioning Burial sites (cairns or barrows) in accordance with religious custom and circles (religious or scientific centres) are often pointed to by these settings as are fortifications. What is a mystery is how they achieved such precision over such long distances to unsighted stones. However, many of the stones are undoubtedly waymarks especially the long single rows on the old ridgeways. Perhaps some of the stones point to structures long gone or are themselves remnants of decayed structures. These people logically worshipped the spirit of the water and the stones would seem to confirm this. It is likely that the people who erected them were no less sophisticated and intelligent than us. Religion was important to these ancient people for they saw it as governing their everyday lives but the mechanics of it would most likely have been left to their 'priests' as in primitive societies today. However, religion was then as much concerned with this world as the next.

Round Barrows are earth works whereas cairns are mainly of stones. Those unnamed are termed tumulus (tumuli plural) on the OS maps.

We tend to think of these primitive people as believing in magic but we see them in this way merely because we believe them to be ignorant of science and technology. There has been little excavation of archaeological sites to bring us possible enlightenment on such matters.

The prehistoric people are said to have cut down the woodlands that once dominated the forest. They used the timber as fuel and cleared the land to graze their flocks. The wood would also have been used for the houses of later settlers.

The 'Quarries' in Buscombe and West Pinford Combe are now disused but their modest output was used in the construction of the Buscombe or Lanacombe Enclosure and the Beckham stell. The latter being linked by a still usable miner's track to its 'quarry' in West Pinford Combe. The term 'quarry' is perhaps too grand for these modest diggings and these features are not shown on the 2½" sheet of the area but only on the original 6" sheet. Whether the stone was used for the Knight walls is less certain for a larger resource would probably have been needed. Further evidence is required regarding the stone 'ramparts' near the quarry in Buscombe for their purpose is uncertain. They are not dams for water power as they run parallel to the stream but might either be there to stop water entering the workings or as the banks of races for some sort of mechanical device long removed for cleaning or cutting the stone. The mound north of the upper stream opposite to Rexy Barrow may also be a cairn based on the lay line principle but further research is required.

The road that once ran between Challacombe and Porlock can be seen and followed in a few places but elsewhere it has disappeared: eaten up by bog, erosion and agriculture. The easiest stretch to follow runs from the Trout Hill fence eastwards to the West Pinford Stream head where a distinct causeway of stone can be observed. Here is the resort of the Red Deer on the wildness of Black Barrow Down but the road disappears at this point in a foul mire although its outline can be dimly descried going on towards Larkbarrow.

Black Barrow Down is a continuous range from the barrow itself to the Chains with which it is nearly contiguous. There are many unpleasant bogs between Black Mires, which may have been filled in, and the incline to Black Barrow. However, Blackmore's description of the Wizard's Slough is undoubtedly fanciful or perhaps colourful would be a better description for in reality only cotton grass relieves the monotony of the black abyss of an Exmoor bog.

Reference has been made to the 'lay lines'.  There are 1544 lines joining at least three monuments which diverge 30m or less whereas by randomly siting the actual number of 113 monuments only 517 straight lines were generated within the same tolerance. The evidence therefore tends to suggest that at least two-thirds of the actual straight lines were deliberated contrived by those who set them up. I know of no evidence to suggest any mystical significance to this arrangement other than that some of the stones undoubtedly point to sacred sites or at least burial places. I am of the view that the stones are waymarks set up to guide the travellers, possibly in the bronze age, in the same way as we have road signs today. Perhaps they achieved such accuracy in positioning their stones by utilising the lodestone, the stars or the sun. From the figures it seems that passages were made to the sea at Combe Martin, Lee Bay (Lynton), Glenthorne Beach and Porlock perhaps for obvious reasons but as to the inland destinations we can only guess without hard archaeological evidence. As has been said, these ancient traffic signs point to sacred sites (resting places for the dead), sources of fresh water and long distance trackways. Charcoal deposits have been found at one circle and cremation was the usual rite. The bones were buried in the round barrows which are invariably found adjacent to these stone circles and aligned with other stones as if position was everything but this arrangement may merely be contrived to enable location of the sites by the descendants of the deceased.
It should be noted that stones already in situ may have been used by later peoples. A stone (noted below) marked as a Boundary Stone near Aldermans Barrow was probably erected prior to the inception of the Royal Forest of Exmoor. The fact that a stone is now used as a rubbing stone does not mean that it was not erected in the Bronze Age as a waymark. Of course one should beware of stones erected only as rubbing stones but their alignment can give the clue as to their history.

Grinsell seems to be wrong in his comparison between the Exmoor and Dartmoor Stone Rows in that all the former point to burial sites in the vicinity.

Malcolm New